Nakshatras (नक्षत्राणि)

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Nakshatras (Samskrit: नक्षत्राणि) refer to asterisms in the moon's path or lunar mansion, of which twenty-eight, distinct in name, figure, and number of stars, are enumerated. The Puranic and popular enumeration of these constellations is twenty-seven. Abhijit, the twenty-eighth, being considered as formed of portions of the two contiguous asterisms, and not distinct from them both.[1]

परिचयः ॥ Introduction

Nakshatra is in general, a star.[1] In the Aitareya brahmana, the apparent path by which the grahas (ग्रहाः | planets), the Moon and the Sun move in the sky on the background of the stars is called a 'Royal Path'. The ancient seers divided this path into 27 divisions called nakshatras because it was observed that the moon came back to the same position in the zodiac once in about 27 days.[2][3] Therefore, here, nakshatra refers to an asterism in the moon's path or lunar mansion.[1] And each day was marked by the asterism or asterismal group (nakshatra) near which the moon was seen, resulting in calling the asterism as the day's nakshatra, from which the 27 asterismal segments of the zodiac came into use.[3]

The meaning of the number 27 is easily explained when it is remembered that a periodic month occupies something between 27 and 28 days, more nearly the former number. Such a month as consisting of 27 days, 12 months making a year of 324 days, a Nakṣatra year, or with an intercalary month, a year of 351 days is recognized in the Latyayana Shrauta Sutras and Nidana Sutras.

स षट्त्रिंशदूनो नाक्षत्रः सप्तविंशिनो हि मासाः ॥४॥ (Laty. Shra. Sutr. 4.8.4)[4]

sa ṣaṭtriṁśadūno nākṣatraḥ saptaviṁśino hi māsāḥ ॥4॥

Commenting upon this Latyayana sutra, Shri Anandaswami says,

स एवं क्रियमाणः संवत्सरः सावनात् संवत्सरात् षट् त्रिंशताहोभिः ऊनो भवति नाक्षत्रः नक्षत्रसम्मितः सप्तविंशिनो मासा भवन्ति तत्र सप्तविंशतिर्नक्षत्राणीति ॥४॥(Laty. Shra. Sutr. 4.8.4)[4]

sa evaṁ kriyamāṇaḥ saṁvatsaraḥ sāvanāt saṁvatsarāt ṣaṭ triṁśatāhobhiḥ ūno bhavati nākṣatraḥ nakṣatrasammitaḥ saptaviṁśino māsā bhavanti tatra saptaviṁśatirnakṣatrāṇīti ॥4॥

The Nidana sutra (Prapathaka 5) describes the one-year yajna of the Sun and the one year yajna of the constellation. And while discussing the period for performing each constellation, it mentions that there are 27 constellations.

तेषां नक्षत्रः प्रथमः, तस्य सप्तविंशिनो मासाः, सप्तविंशतिर्नक्षत्राणीति |[5] (Prapathaka 5, Patala 5)

teṣāṁ nakṣatraḥ prathamaḥ, tasya saptaviṁśino māsāḥ, saptaviṁśatirnakṣatrāṇīti |

Also, this nakshatra system consisting of 27 nakshatras (or 28 including Abhijit), used to indicate days, was evolved long back. It is pointed out that Agrahayana, an old name for mrgashira nakshatra, meaning 'beginning of the year' suggests that the sun used to be in that asterism at the vernal equinox. While, the Rohini legends in the Rgveda point to a time in the late Rgveda period when the vernal equinox shifted to the Rohini asterism (from Mrgashira).[6] Therefore, the 27 nakshatras were utilised in the study of the position of the Sun and the Moon.[7]

व्युत्पत्तिः ॥ Etymology

Shabda Sagara gives the etymology of the word nakshatra as न क्षीयते क्षरते वा । na kṣīyate kṣarate vā ।[1]

While the Shatapatha brahmana explains the etymology of the word nakshatra with an anecdote in the context of discussing the right time for Agnyadhana. It says, the stars shone just like the Sun or the moon. However, the Sun, even as he was rising destroyed their power, virility and lustre. And hence, the deities said, "These are not powers any more." That is the powerlessness (nakshatratva) of the stars.

तेजः प्रलुलोप तद्धैषामादधे ते ह देवा उचुर्न वा इमानि क्षत्राण्यभूवन्निति तन्नक्षत्राणां नक्षत्रत्वमा... ॥१२॥[8]

tejaḥ pralulopa taddhaiṣāmādadhe te ha devā ucurna vā imāni kṣatrāṇyabhūvanniti tannakṣatrāṇāṁ nakṣatratvamā... ॥12॥

Nirukta mentions Rksha and Strbhi as synonyms of nakshatra. And further states that Nakshatra (star) is derived from the root naksh, meaning 'to go'.[9]

ऋक्षाः स्तृभिः इति नक्षत्राणाम् । इति अपि निगमौ भवतः । नक्षत्राणि नक्षतेः गतिकर्मणः । इति अपि निगमः भवति । ३.२० ।[10]

r̥kṣāḥ str̥bhiḥ iti nakṣatrāṇām । iti api nigamau bhavataḥ । nakṣatrāṇi nakṣateḥ gatikarmaṇaḥ । iti api nigamaḥ bhavati । 3.20 ।

While the Taittiriya brahmana says,

अमुꣳ स लोकं नक्षते । तन्नक्षत्राणां नक्षत्रत्वम् ५[11] amuꣳ sa lokaṁ nakṣate । tannakṣatrāṇāṁ nakṣatratvam 5

According to Amarakosha, there are 6 words for a star -Nakshatra, Rksha, Bha, Tara, Taraka and Udu. While, the word Dakshayani is always used in plural as suggestive collectively of the 27 stars namely, Ashvini and others.[12]

नक्षत्रमृक्षं भं तारा तारकाप्युडु वा स्त्रियाम् दाक्षायिण्योऽश्विनीत्यादि तारा ... (Digvarga)[13]

nakṣatramr̥kṣaṁ bhaṁ tārā tārakāpyuḍu vā striyām dākṣāyiṇyo'śvinītyādi tārā ...

In fact, the Amarakosha also enlists the alternative names for a few nakshatras as follows[12]:

  • Ashvini is also called Ashvayuk
  • Vishakha is also called Radha
  • Pushya is also called as Sidhya and Tishya
  • Dhanishtha is also called Shravishtha
  • Purva Bhadrapada and Uttara bhadrapda are collectively called as Proshthaprada and Bhadrapada
  • Mrgashirsha is also called as Mrgashiras and Agrahayani; while the 5 small stars situated at the head of Mrgashirsha are collectively termed as Ilvala.

अश्वयुगश्विनी ।। १.३.२१८ ।। राधाविशाखा पुष्ये तु सिध्यतिष्यौ श्रविष्ठया ।। १.३.२१९ ।। समा धनिष्ठाः स्युः प्रोष्ठपदा भाद्रपदाः स्त्रियः ।। १.३.२२० ।। मृगशीर्षं मृगशिरस्तस्मिन्नेवाग्रहायणी ।। १.३.२२१ ।। इल्वलास्तच्छिरोदेशे तारका निवसन्ति याः ।। १.३.२२२ ।।[13]

aśvayugaśvinī ।। 1.3.218 ।। rādhāviśākhā puṣye tu sidhyatiṣyau śraviṣṭhayā ।। 1.3.219 ।। samā dhaniṣṭhāḥ syuḥ proṣṭhapadā bhādrapadāḥ striyaḥ ।। 1.3.220 ।। mr̥gaśīrṣaṁ mr̥gaśirastasminnevāgrahāyaṇī ।। 1.3.221 ।। ilvalāstacchirodeśe tārakā nivasanti yāḥ ।। 1.3.222 ।।

वेदवाङ्मये नक्षत्रम् ॥ Nakshatra in the Vedic Literature

ऋग्वेदसाहित्ये ॥ In the Rgvedic Literature

Prof K. S. Shukla in his paper 'Astronomy in ancient and medieval India' mentions that the Rgveda divides the Sun's yearly path into 12 and 360 divisions. Similarly, the moon's path was divided into 27 parts and each part was called a nakshatra. The stars lying near the moon's path were also divided into 27 (or sometimes 28) groups and each of them was called a nakshatra (asterism). The names of some of these nakshatras namely, Tishya (Pushya), Agha (Magha), Arjuni (Phalguni), Chitra and Revati are mentioned in the Rgveda.[7]

Rgveda 5.54.13; 10.64.8; 10.85.13; 4.51.2; 4.51.4[14]

In the sense of ‘star’ - passages in which Nakṣatra occurs in the Rigveda. 7) See i. 50, 2; vii. 86, 1; x. 68, 11; 111, 7;

Meaning the sun itself, vi. 67, 6 (as masculine); vii. 81, 2; x. 88, 13.

The sun is allied with them, iii. 54, 19.

other references to the Nakṣatras as 27 in the Rigveda, 17) i. 162, 18 (the 34 ribs of the horse = moon, sun, 5 grahas (ग्रहाः), 27 Nakṣatras); x. 55, 3 (34 lights).

यजुर्वेदसाहित्ये ॥ In the Yajurvedic Literature

The Taittiriya Samhita of the Krishna Yajurveda mentions the names of the 27 nakshatras.[7]

the sun and the Nakṣatras are mentioned together in Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā, xxiii. 43; Taittirīya Āraṇyaka, iv. 10, 12.

the sun, the moon, and the Nakṣatras in Taittirīya Saṃhitā, i. 8, 13, 3; Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā, xxii. 29, etc.

the moon and the Nakṣatras, Taittirīya Saṃhitā, iii. 4, 5, 1; Kāṭhaka Saṃhitā, xxxv. 15; xxxvii. 12; Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā, xxx. 21; xxxix. 2, etc.

the Nakṣatras alone; 11) Taittirīya Saṃhitā, i. 2, 2, 2; ii 6, 2, 6, etc; Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā, xxx. 21 etc.; Kāṭhaka Saṃhitā, Aśvamedha, v. 5,

सामवेदसाहित्ये ॥ In the Samavedic Literature

the sun and the Nakṣatras are mentioned together in Pañcaviṃśa Brāhmaṇa, x. 1, 1;

अथर्ववेदसाहित्ये ॥ In the Atharvavedic Literature

the sun and the Nakṣatras are mentioned together in 8) Av. vi. 10, 3;

the sun, the moon, and the Nakṣatras in 9) Av. vi. 128, 3; xv. 6, 2;

the moon and the Nakṣatras, 10) Av. v. 24, 10; vi. 86, 2; Taittirīya Saṃhitā, iii. 4, 5, 1; Kāṭhaka Saṃhitā, xxxv. 15; xxxvii. 12; Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā, xxx. 21; xxxix. 2, etc.

चन्द्रेण सह विवाहः ॥ Marriage with Chandra

In several passages of the later Saṃhitās the connection of the moon and the Nakṣatras is conceived of as a marriage union. Thus in the Kāṭhaka 19) xi. 3 and Taittirīya Saṃhitās 20) ii. 3, 5, 1-3. Cf. also iii. 4, 7. 1; Kāṭhaka Saṃhitā, xviii. 14; Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā, xviii. 40; Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, ix. 4, 1, 9; Ṣaḍviṃśa Brāhmaṇa, iii. 12.

The dwelling of the moon in a Nakṣatra is mentioned, Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, x. 5, 4, 17; Nirukta, v. 21; a Mantra in Kauśika Sūtra, 135; Taittirīya Āraṇyaka, i. 11, 6; v. 12, 1, etc.

it is expressly stated that Soma was wedded to the mansions, but dwelt only with Rohiṇī; the others being angry, he had ultimately to undertake to live with them all equally. the later system of the Siddhāntas, and Tilak, Orion, 33 et seq. hence deduced that the Nakṣatras were regarded as of equal extent.

नक्षत्राणामहं शशी Bg.1.21.

नक्षत्राणां सङ्ख्या ॥ Number of Nakshatras

it is expressly stated that Soma was wedded to the mansions, but dwelt only with Rohiṇī; the others being angry, he had ultimately to undertake to live with them all equally. the later system of the Siddhāntas, and Tilak, Orion, 33 et seq. hence deduced that the Nakṣatras were regarded as of equal extent.

The number of the mansions is not stated as 27 in the story told in the two Saṃhitās: the Taittīriya has 33, and the Kāṭhaka no number; but 27 appears as their number in the list which is found in the Taittirīya Saṃhitā 22) iv. 4, 10, 1-3. and elsewhere. 23) Kāṭhaka Saṃhitā, xxxix. 13, but Maitrāyaṇī Saṃhitā, ii. 13, 20, has 28; Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa, i. 5, 1, 1-5, in lists of Nakṣatras.

See also Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā, ix, 7; Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, x. 5, 4, 5; Pañcaviṃśa Brāhmaṇa, xxiii, 23; Kauṣītaki Brāhmaṇa, v. 1; Sāṅkhāyana Āraṇyaka, ii. 16; Taittirīya Saṃhitā, vii. 1, 2, 2; Śāṅkhāyana Śrauta Sūtra, xiv. 78, etc.

in one passage of the Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa 24) i. 5, 2, 3. Abhijit is practically marked as a new comer, though in a later book, 25) iii. 1, 2, 6. in the Maitrāyaṇī Saṃhitā, 26) ii. 13, 20. and in the Atharvaveda list, 27) xix. 7, 1; 8, 1 = Nakṣatrakalpa, 10. 26. So in Śāṅkhāyana Gṛhya Sūtra, i. 26. it has found acceptance. It is perfectly possible that 28 is the earlier number, and that Abhijit dropped out because it was faint, or too far north, or because 27 was a more mystic (3×3×3) number:

The meaning of the number 27 is easily explained when it is remembered that a periodic month occupies something between 27 and 28 days, more nearly the former number. Such a month is in fact recognized in the Lāṭyāyana 30) iv. 8, 1 et seq. and Nidāna Sūtras 31) v. 11. 12. as consisting of 27 days, 12 months making a year of 324 days, a Nakṣatra year, or with an intercalary month, a year of 351 days.

In the ceremony of the Agnicayana, or ‘piling of the firealtar,’ the bricks are assumed to be equal in number to the Nakṣatras. The bricks number 756, and they are equated to 27 Nakṣatras multiplied by 27 secondary Nakṣatras, reckoned as 720 (instead of 729), with the addition of 36 days, the length of an intercalary month.

नक्षत्रनामावलिः ॥ Names of the Nakshatras

With reference to possible times for the ceremony of the Agnyādhāna, or ‘laying of the sacred fires,’ the Kāṭhaka Saṃhitā, 38) viii. 1. the Maitrāyaṇī Saṃhitā, 39) i. 6, 9. and the Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa 40) i. 1, 2, 1-6. mention the Nakṣatras called Kṛttikās, Rohiṇī, Phalgunyas, Hasta;

The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 42) ii. 1, 2, 1. adds Mṛgaśīrṣa and Citrā as possibilities.

Punarvasū is recommended by all authorities 43) Taittirīya Saṃhitā, i. 5, 1, 4; Maitrāyaṇī Saṃhitā, i. 7, 2; Kāṭhaka Saṃhitā, viii. 15; Shatapatha Brāhmaṇa, ii. 1, 2, 10; Kauṣītaki Brāhmaṇa, i. 3. as suitable for the Punarādheya, ‘relaying of the sacred fires,’ which takes place if the first fire has failed to effect the aim of its existence, the prosperity of the yajamana. 44) The Kāṭhaka Saṃhitā, 45) viii. 15; Maitrāyaṇī Saṃhitā. i. 7, 2. however, allows Anurādhās also.

In the ceremony of the Agnicayana, or ‘piling of the firealtar,’ the bricks are assumed to be equal in number to the Nakṣatras. The bricks number 756, and they are equated to 27 Nakṣatras multiplied by 27 secondary Nakṣatras, reckoned as 720 (instead of 729), with the addition of 36 days, the length of an intercalary month.

46) Shatapatha brahmana, 10.5.4.5 gives the names of the 27 nakshatras as well as those of the 27 upa-nakshatras.[14]

see Shamasastry, Gavam ayana, 122 et seq. But in connection with this ceremony the Yajurveda Saṃhitās 47) Taittiriya Samhitā, iv. 4, 10. 1-3; Maitrāyaṇī Saṃhitā, i. 13, 20; Kātnaka Saṃhitā, xxxix. 13. enumerate the 27 Nakṣatras, and these lists

Taittirīya Saṃhitā. Maitrāyaṇī Saṃhita. Kāṭhaka Saṃhitā.

1. Kṛttikās (fem. plur.) ... Kṛttikās ... ... ... Kṛttikās

2. Rohiṇī ... ... ... Rohiṇī ... ... ... Rohiṇī

3. Mṛgaśīrṣa (neut.) ... Invagā ... ... ... Invakā

4. Ārdrā ... ... ... Bāhu ... ... ... Bāhu

5. Punarvasū (dual) ... Punarvasu (sing.) ... ... Punarvasu

6. Tiṣya ... ... ... Tiṣya ... ... ... Tiṣya

7. Āśreṣās (fem. plur.) ... Āśleṣās(plur.; Pada Aśleṣā) Āśleṣās (or Aśleṣās)

8. Maghās (fem. plur.) ... Maghās ... ... ... Maghās

9. Phalgunī (fem. dual) ... Phalgunīs (plur.) ... ... Phalgunis

10. Phalgunī (fem. dual) ...Phalgunīs (plur.) ... ... Uttarāḥa Phalgunīs

11. Hasta ... ... ... Hasta ... ... ... Hastau (dual)

12. Citrā ... ... ... Citrā ... ... ... Citrā

13. Svātī ... ... ... Niṣṭya (neut.) ... ... Niṣṭyā

14. Viśākhe (fem. dual) ... Viśākha (neut. sing.) ... Viśākhā (fem. sing.)

15. Anūrādhās (plur.) ... Anūrādhā (Pada Anu-Anūrādhās (masc. rādhā) Anūrādhās (masc. plur.)

16. Rohiṇī ... ... ... Jyeṣṭhā ... ... ... Jyeṣṭhā

17. Vicṛtau ... ... ... Mūla (neut.) ... ... Mūla

18. Aṣāḍhās (fem. plur.) ... Aṣāḍhās ... ... ... Aṣāḍhās

19. Aṣāḍhās (fem. plur.) ... Aṣāḍhās ... ... ...Uttarā Aṣāḍhās

20. Abhijit ... ... ...

21. Śroṇā ... ... ... Śroṇā ... ... ... Aśvattha

22. Śraviṣṭhās (plur.) ... Śraviṣṭhās ... ... ... Śraviṣṭhās

23. Śatabhiṣaj ... ... Śatabhiṣaj ... ... ... Śatabhiṣaj

24. Proṣṭhapadās (masc. plur.) Proṣṭhapadās ... ... Proṣṭhapadās

25. Proṣṭhapadās(masc. plur.) Proṣṭhapadās ... ... Uttare Proṣṭhapadās

26. Revatī ... ... ... Revatī ... ... ... Revatī

27. Aśvayujau (dual) ... Aśvayujau ... ... ... Aśvayujau

28. Apabharaṇīs (fem. plur.) Bharaṇīs ... ... ... Apabharaṇīs

The Taittirīya Brahmaṇa 49) i. 5, 1 has a list of the Nakṣatras which agrees generally with the list of the Saṃhitās. It runs as follows: Kṛttikās, Rohiṇī, Invakās, Bāhū (dual), Tiṣya, Āśleṣās, Maghās, Pūrve Phalgunī, Uttare Phalgunī, Hasta, Citrā, Niṣṭyā, Viśākhe, Anūrādhās, Rohiṇī, Mūlabarhaṇī, Pūrvā Aṣāḍhās, Uttarā Aṣāḍhās, Śroṇā, Śraviṣṭhās, Śatabhiṣaj, Pūrve Proṣṭhapadās, Uttare Proṣṭhapadās, Revatī, Aśvayujau, Apabharaṇīs.

The seven stars of the Kṛttikās are named as Ambā, Dulā, Nitatnī, Abhrayantī, Meghayantī, Varṣayantī, Cupuṇīkā, names found also in the Taittirīya 51) iv. 4, 5, 1. and Kāṭhaka Saṃhitās. 52) xl. 4.

The nineteenth book of the Atharvaveda contains a list 61) xix. 7, 1 et seq. The number is given as 28 in xix. 7, 1

The list of nakshatras with English names of important stars in each nakshatra are as follows:[2]

  • Ashvini (Alpha Aritis)
  • Bharani (41 Aritis)
  • Krttika (Eta Tauri)
  • Rohini (Alpha Tauri)
  • Mrgashirsha (Lamda Orinis)
  • Ardra (Gama Geminorium)
  • Punarvasu (Bita Geminorium)
  • Pushya (Delta Cancri)
  • Ashlesha (Zita Hydree)
  • Magha (Alpha Leonis)
  • Purva Phalguni (Thita Leonis)
  • Uttara Phalguni (Beta Leonis)
  • Hasta (Delta Curri)
  • Chitra (Alpha Verginis)
  • Swati (Alpha Bootes)
  • Vishakha (Libra)
  • Anuradha (Bita Scorphi)
  • Jyeshtha (Alpha Scorpi)
  • Mula (Lamda Scorphi)
  • Purvashadha (Epsilon Sagattari)
  • Uttarashadha (Pai Sagattari)
  • Shravana (Alpha Aquili)
  • Shravishtha (Alpha Delfhini)
  • Shatabhishaj (Lamda Aquari)
  • Purva Bhadrapada (Alpha Pegasi)
  • Uttara Bhadrapada (Gama Pegasi)
  • Revati (Zita Pesium)

नक्षत्रदेवताः ॥ Presiding Deities

In the Vedas the asterisms are considered to be the abodes of the deities or the visible forms of pious persons after death, Sāyaṇa on Ṛg-veda I. 50, 2

later as wives of the moon and daughters of दक्ष MBh. Hariv.

the Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa divides the Nakṣatras into two sets, the Deva Nakṣatras and the Yama Nakṣatras, being 1-14 and 15-27 (with the omission of Abhijit) respectively.

Vedanga Jyotisha of Lagadha.

It was observed that the moon came back to the same position in the zodiac once in about 27 days and that each day was marked by the asterism or asterismal group (nakshatra) near which the moon was seen, resulting in calling the asterism ad the day's nakshatra, from which the 27 asterismal segments of the zodiac came into use.

The names of these with their presiding deities are enumerated in the Yajurveda, beginning with Krttika, where the spring equinox was situated at that period. The thirteen and a half nakshatras ending with Vishakha, situated in the northern hemisphere, were called devanakshatras, while the thirteen and a half others ending with Bharani were called yamanakshatras as seen in the following passage of the Taittiriya brahmana (1.5.2.7)[3]

कृत्तिकाः प्रथमम् । विशाखे उत्तमम् । तानि देवनक्षत्राणि । अनूराधाः प्रथमम् । अपभरणीरुत्तमम् । तानि यमनक्षत्राणि ।[15]

kr̥ttikāḥ prathamam । viśākhe uttamam । tāni devanakṣatrāṇi । anūrādhāḥ prathamam । apabharaṇīruttamam । tāni yamanakṣatrāṇi ।

The presiding deities of the asterisms (beginning from krttika) are, respectively: Agni, Prajapati, Soma, Rudra, Aditi, Brhaspati, Serpents, Pitrs (Manes), Bhaga, Aryaman, Savita, Tvasta, Vayu, Indragni, Mitra, Indra, Nirrti, Waters, Vishvedevas, Vishnu, Vasus, Varuna, Ajaekapada, Ahirbudhnya, Pushan, Ashvinas and Yama. (R-VJ 25-28; Y-VY 32-35)

अग्निः प्रजापतिः सोमो रुद्रोऽदितिर्बृहस्पतिः । सर्पाश्च पितरश्चैव भगश्चैवार्यमापि च ॥२५॥

सविता त्वष्टाथ वायुश्चेन्द्राग्नी मित्र एव च । इन्द्रो निरॄतिरापो वै विश्वेदेवास्तथैव च ॥२६॥

विष्णुर्वसवो वरुणोऽज एकपात् तथैव च । अहिर्बुध्न्यस्तथा पूषा अश्विनौ यम एव च ॥२७॥[3]

agniḥ prajāpatiḥ somo rudro'ditirbr̥haspatiḥ । sarpāśca pitaraścaiva bhagaścaivāryamāpi ca ॥25॥

savitā tvaṣṭātha vāyuścendrāgnī mitra eva ca । indro nirr̥̄tirāpo vai viśvedevāstathaiva ca ॥26॥

viṣṇurvasavo varuṇo'ja ekapāt tathaiva ca । ahirbudhnyastathā pūṣā aśvinau yama eva ca ॥27॥

The Taittiriya Samhita (4.4.10.1-3) and the Taittiriya brahmana (1.5.1; 3.1.1-2; 3.1.4-5) give the names of the 28 nakshatras along with those of the deities supposed to preside over them.

Also see, Atharva-samhita 19.7.2-5; Kathaka-samhita 39.13; Maitrayani-samhita 2.13.20[16]

Constellations other than Nakshatras

Apart from the 28 nakshatras, some other constellations have also been noted in the Vedic literature. The Rgveda (1.24.10; 10.14.11; 10.63.10) mentions

  • the Rkshas or Bears (the Great Bear and the Little Bear)
  • the two divine Dogs (Canis Major and Canis Minor)
  • the heavenly Boat (Argo Navis)

The Great Bear was also known as Saptarshi (the constellation of the seven sages) and was mentioned by this name in Shatapatha brahmana (2.1.2.4) and the Tandya brahmana (1.5.5)

The golden Boat (Argo Navis) is mentioned in the Atharvaveda also. (5.4.4; 6.95.2)

While the Aitareya-brahmana (13.9) mentions the constellation of Mrga or Deer (Orion) anf the star Mrgavyadha (Sirius), and narrates an interesting story regarding them.[14]

Meteors and Comets

Ulka (meteors) and Dhumaketu (comets) have been mentioned in the Atharvaveda. (19.9.8-9, 19.9.10)[14]

Nakshatras - An Introduction[17]

The Rgveda describes the universe to be infinite. Of the five grahas (ग्रहाः), it mentions Brhaspati (Jupiter) and Vena (Venus) by name (16). The moon's path was divided into 27 equal parts, although the moon takes about 27 1/3 days to complete it. Each of these parts was called a nakshatra. Specific stars or asterisms were also termed nakshatras. Shatapatha Brahmana relates a story (17) about the nakshatras being as powerful as the sun in earlier times but that they have lost this power to the sun. In view of this the etymology na + kshatra, `no power,' is proposed. A favored modern etymology is nak-kshatra, `ruler over night.' One ancient name of astronomer is nakshatra-darsha.

Nakshatras are mentioned in the Rgveda and Taittiriya Samhita specifically mentions that they are linked to the moon's path. The Rgvedic reference to 34 lights apparently means the sun, the moon, the five grahas (ग्रहाः), and the 27 nakshatras. In later literature the list of nakshatras was increased to 28. Constellations other than the nakshatras were also known; these include the Rkshas (the Bears), the two divine Dogs (Canis Major and Canis Minor), and the Boat (Argo Navis). Aitreya Brahmana speaks of Mrga (Orion) and Mrgavyadha (Sirius). The moon is called surya rashmi, one that shines by sunlight.

Shatapatha Brahmana provides an overview of the broad aspects of Vedic astronomy. The sixth chapter (kanda) of the book provides significant clues. Speaking of creation under the aegis of the Prajapati (reference either to a star or to abstract time) mention is made of the emergence of Ashva, Rasabha, Aja and Kurma before the emergence of the earth. It has been argued that these refer to stars or constellations. Vishvanatha Vidyalankara (18) suggests that these should be identified as the sun (Asva), Gemini (Rasabha), Aja (Capricorn) and Kurma (Cassiopeia). This identication is supported by etymological considerations. RV 1.164.2 and Nirukta 4.4.27 define Asva as the sun. Rasabha which literally means the twin asses are defined in Nighantu 1.15 as Asvinau which later usage suggests are Castor and Pollux in Gemini. In Western astronomy the twin asses are to be found in the next constellation of Cancer as Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis. Aja (goat) is defined by Nighantu 1.15 as a sun and owing to the continuity that we see in the Vedic and later European names for constellations (as in the case of the Great Bear) it is reasonable to identify it as the constellation Capricorn (caper goat + cornu horn). Kurma is a synonym of Kashyapa (tortoise) which is linguistically close to Cassiopeia (from Greek Kassiopeia). Etymologically Kashyapiya, slow like a tortoise, seems appropriate for Cassiopeia (from Greek Kassiopeia) since it is near the pole. This last name may point to an epoch when this constellation was even closer to the north pole.

Vedic ritual was based on the times for the full and the new moons, solstices and the equinoxes. The year was known to be somewhat more than 365 days and a bit less than 366 days. The solar year was marked variously in the many dierent astronomical traditions that marked the Vedic world. In one tradition, an extra eleven days, marked by ekadasharatra or eleven day sacrifice, were added to the lunar year of 354 days. According to the Taittiriya Samhita five more days are required over the nominal year of 360 days to complete the seasons, adding that four days are too short and six days are too long. In other traditions, Gavamayana, `the walk of cows or intercalary periods,' varied from 36 days of the lunar sidereal year of 12 months of 27 days, to 9 days for the lunar sidereal year of 13 months of 27 days to bring the year in line with the ideal year of 360 days; additional days were required to be in accord with the solar year.

The year was divided into two halves: uttarayana, when the sun travels north, and dakshinayana, when the sun travels south. According to Kaushitaki Brahmana, the year-long sacrifices began with the winter solstice, noting the occurrence of the summer solstice, visuvant, after six months.

The twelve tropical months, and the six seasons, are named in the Yajurveda:

Madhu, Madhava in vasanta (spring);

Shukra, Shuci in grishma (summer);

Nabha, Nabhasya in varsha (rains);

Isha, Urja in sharada (autumn);

Saha, Sahasya in hemanta (winter);

Tapa, Tapasya in shishira (freeze).

The nakshatra names of the months began with Chaitra in spring, although some lists begin with Phalguna. Since the months shift with respect to the twelve nakshatra about 2,000 years per nakshatra, this change in the lists indicates a corresponding long period. The lists that begin with Chaitra mark the months thus:

Chaitra, Vaishakha,

Jyaistha, Ashadha,

Shravana, Bhadrapada,

Ashvina, Karttika,

Margashira, Paushya,

Magha, Phalguna.

The earliest lists of nakshatras in the Vedic books begin with Krttikas, the Pleiades; much later lists dating from sixth century C.E. begin with Ashvini when the vernal equinox occurred on the border of Revati and Asvini. Assuming that the beginning of the list marked the same astronomical event, as is supported by other evidence, the earliest lists should belong to the third millennium B.C.E. Taittiriya Samhita 4.4.10 and Shatapatha Brahmana 10.5.4.5 each mention 27 nakshatras. But there was also a tradition of the use of 28 nakshatras. The Atharvaveda 19.7 lists these 28 together with their presiding deities; the additional naks.atra is Abhijit. The lists begins with Krttika (Pleiades) where the spring equinox was situated at that time.(19)

The following is a list of the nakshatras and their locations:

1. Krttika, from the root krt, `to cut.' These are the Pleiades. Shatapatha Brahmana says that the Krttikas do not swerve from the east; this indicates early third millennium B.C.E.

2. Rohini, `ruddy,' is Tauri, Aldebaran. The legend of Prajapati, Orion, considered the personification of the year, pursuing his daughter, Rohini, refers to the age when the beginning of the year shifted from Orion to Rohini. In this legend Prajapati's head was cut off by Mrgavyadha, Sirius. In another version of this legend Siva cuts off the head of Daksha Prajapati. Such a shifting of the year occurred in the fifth millennium B.C.E. Atharvaveda 13.1.22 recalls the period when the sun rose in Rohini

3. Mrgashirsha, `Orion's head.' Since the head of Orion was cut off, this is the region of the stars �; �1; �2 Orionis. Another name of this naks.atra is �Agrah�ayana, `the beginning of the year,' which is a cognate of the word Orion. The vernal equinox lay in Orion around 4500 B.C.E.

4. Ardra, `moist,' is the brilliant star Betelgeuse, � Orionis.

5. Punarvasu, `the two that give wealth again,' are the stars Castor and Pollux, or � and � Geminorum.

6. Tishya, `pleased,' or Pushya, owered,' refers to the age when these stars, �; �; ; � Cancri, formed the background to the sun during the summer solstice.

7. Ashresha or Ashlesha, `embracer,' represents �; �; � Hydrae.

8. Magha, `the bounties,' is the group of stars near Regulus, namely ; �; ; �; �; � Leonis.

9. Purva Phalguni, `bright,' � and � Leonis.

10. Uttara Phalguni, `bright,' � and 93 Leonis. Since Maghavan and Phalgun are names of Indra, clearly a shifting of the summer solstice due to precession is indicated.

11. Hasta, `hand.' The stars �; ; �; �; � in Corvus.

12. Chitra, `bright.' This is Spica or � Virginis.

13. Svati, `self-bound,' or Nishtya, is the Arctutus or � Bootis. The name appears to refer to its nearness to the Saptarshi, Ursa Major.

14. Vishakha, `without branches.' The stars �; �; � Librae. The name refers to the way the ecliptic separates � and �, with the three stars looking like a bow. In Atharvaveda we encounter the expression radho vishakhe, Vishakha are prosperity.

15. Anuradha, `propitious,' `what follows Radha.' These are the �; �; � Scorpii.

16. Rohini, `ruddy', or Jyeshtha, `eldest.' This is Antares, � Scorpii.

17. Vicrtau, `the two releasers,' or Mula, `root.' These are the stars from � to �; � Scorpii.

18. Purva Ashadha, `unconquered,' �; � Sagittarii.

19. Uttara Ashadha, `unconquered,' �; � Sagittarii.

20. Abhijit, `reaching victory.' The name refers to a satisfactory completion of the system of nakshatras. The star is Vega, the brilliant � Lyrae. This is the star that does not occur in the lists which have only 27 nakshatras on it.

21. Shrona, `lame,' or Shravana, `ear.' This represents Altair, � Aquillae, with � below it and above it.

22. Shravishtha, `most famous.' It is the diamond-shaped group �; �; �; Delphini. It was later called Dhanishtha, `most wealthy.' Perhaps the diamond shape gave the name. Vedanga Jyotisha says that the winter solstice was in the beginning of Shravishtha, which indicates a period of around 1350 B.C.E.

23. Shatabhishaj, `having a hundred physicians' is � Aquarii and the stars around it.

24. Proshthapada, `feet of stool,' are the �; � Pegasi.

25. Uttare Proshthapada, `feet of stool,' and later Bhadrapada, `auspicious feet.' These are Pegasi and � Andromedae. The name of this and the preceding constellation is suggested by the large square made by these four stars.

26. Revati, `wealthy,' �; � Piscium.

27. Ashvayujau, `the two horse-harnessers,' are the stars � and � Arietis. Ashvini is a later name. The name refers to the time when these stars rose just before the sun during vernal equinox.

28. Apabharani, `the bearers,' are the 35, 39, 41 Arietis.

Abhijit, the twentieth in the above list, does not occur in the list of the 27 in Taittiriya Samhita or in Vedanga Jyotisha Maitrayani and Kathaka Samhitas and Atharvaveda contain lists with the 28 nakshatras.

When the asterisms Krttika and Vishakha defined the spring and the autumn equinoxes, the asterisms Magha and Shravishtha defined the summer and the winter solstices.

It has been suggested that because the original list of 27 nakshatras contains only 24 distinct names, these represent the 24 half months of the year. Later, as astronomy developed further, the naks.atra list was expanded to describe the motions of the moon.[17]

Astronomical Evidences Related to Nakshatras[17]

The earth's axis of rotation is tipped at an angle of 23 1/2 degree with respect to the direction of its orbital motion around the sun. This is what causes the changing seasons because the length of the day keeps on varying. The longest and the shortest days, also called summer and winter solstices, occur roughly near the 21st of June and and 21st December, respectively. The date of a solstice can be marked by noting that around this date the sun appears to linger at the same extreme at dawn. The days when the days and nights are equal are called equinoxes. The two equinoxes, vernal in spring and autumnal in fall, mark the halfway points between summer and autumn. The equinoxes occur at the two intersections of the celestial equator and the ecliptic. The motion of the moon is more complex since its orbit is inclined approximately 5 degree to the earth's orbit around the sun, and the earth's gravitation perturbs the moon in its orbit. The resultant precession completes a cycle in 18.61 years.

Due to the precession of the earth's polar axis the direction of the north pole with respect to the �xed background stars keeps on changing. The period of this precession is roughly 26,000. Polaris (� Ursae Minoris) is the Pole star now but around 3000 B.C.E. it was � Draconis which was followed later by � Ursae Minoris; in C.E. 14000 it will be Vega. The equinoxes and the solstices also shift with respect to the background stars. The equinoxes move along the ecliptic in a direction opposite to the yearly course of the sun (Taurus to Aries to Pisces rather than Pisces to Aries to Taurus and so on).

The vernal equinox marked an important day in the year. The sun's position among the constellations at the vernal equinox was an indication of the state of the precessional cycle. This constellation was noted by its heliacal rising. The equinoctial sun occupies each zodiacal constellation for about 2200 years. Around 5000 B.C.E. it was in Gemini; it has moved since into Taurus, Aries, and is now in Pisces. The sun spends about 13 1/3 days in each nakshatra, and the precession of the equinoxes takes them across each nakshatra in about a 1000 years.

Thirteen and a half nakshatras ending with Vishakha were situated in the northern hemispheres; these were called devanakshatras. The remaining nakshatras ending with Bharani that were in the southern hemisphere were called yamanakshatras (yama: twin, dual). This classi�fication in Taittiriya Brahmana (1.5.2.7) corresponds to 2300 B.C.E.

As mentioned above, the list beginning with Krttika indicates that it was drawn up in the third millennium B.C.E. The legend of the cutting off of Prajapati's head suggests a time when the year began with Mrgashirsha in the �fifth millennium B.C.E. Scholars have also argued that a subsequent list began with Rohini. This view is strengthened by the fact that there are two Rohinis, separated by fourteen nakshatras, indicating that the two marked the beginning of the two half-years.

Shatapatha Brahmana speaks (21) of a marriage between the Seven Sages, the stars of the Ursa Major, and the Krttikas; this is elaborated in the Puranas where it is stated that the rshis remain for a hundred years in each nakshatra. In other words, during the earliest times in India there existed a centennial calendar with a cycle of 2,700 years. Called the Saptarshi calendar, it is still in use in several parts of India. Its current beginning is taken to be 3076 B.C.E. On the other hand, notices by the Greek historians Pliny and Arrian suggest that, during the Mauryan times, the calendar used in India began in 6676 B.C.E. It is very likely that this calendar was the Saptarshi calendar with a beginning at 6676 B.C.E.22

Around 500 C.E., a major review of the Indian calendar was attempted by astronomers. Aryabhata, Varahamihira and others used the nakshatra references that the Saptarshi were in Magha at the time of the Mahabharata war to determine its epoch. Aryabhata declared the war to have occurred in 3137 B.C. (the Kaliyuga era begins 35 years after the war), and Varahamihira assigned it 2449 B.C.E. It has been suggested that this discrepancy arose because the change in the number of nakshatras from the earlier counts of 27 to the later 28 was differently computed by the two astronomers. It is quite likely that the fame of the Kaliyuga era with its beginning assigned to 3102 B.C.E. prompted a change in the beginning of the Saptarshi era to about the same time, viz. to 3076 B.C.E.

The shifting of seasons through the year and the shifting of the northern axis allow us to date several other statements in the books.(23) Thus the Shatapatha Brahmana (2.1.2.3) has a statement that points to an earlier epoch where it is stated that Krttika never swerve from the east. This correspond to 2950 B.C.E.

Maitrayaniya Brahmana Upanishad (6.14) refers to the winter solstice being at the mid-point of the Shravishtha segment and the summer solstice at the beginning of Magha. This indicates 1660 B.C.E.

Vedanga Jyotisha (Yajur 6-8) mentions that winter solstice was at the beginning of Shravishtha and the summer solstice at the mid-point of Ashlesha. This corresponds to about 1370 B.C.E.

It should be noted that these dates can only be considered to be very approximate. Furthermore, these dates do not imply that the texts come from the corresponding period; the text may recall an old tradition. A chronology of the Vedic period by means of astronomical references was attempted by the historian of science P.C. Sengupta.(24) Amongst other evidence, Sengupta uses the description of the solar eclipse in RV 5.40.5-9 to fi�x a date for it. Unfortunately, this work has not received the attention it deserves.

The changes in the beginning of the Nakshatra lists bring us down to the Common Era; at the time of Varahamihira (550 C.E.) the vernal equinox was in Ashvini.[17]

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Kulapati Jibananda Vidyasagara (1900), Shabda Sagara, First Edition, Entry: Nakshatra.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Prabhakar Vyankatesh Holay, Vedic Astronomy, Nagpur: Shri Babasaheb Apte Smarak Samitee, Nakshatras (p.17).
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 K.V.Sarma (1985), Vedanga Jyotisa of Lagadha, New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Ananda Chandra Vedantavagisa (1872), Srautasutra of Latyayana with the commentary of Agniswami, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 4th Prapathaka, 8th Kandika.
  5. K. N. Bhatnagar (1971), Nidana-Sutra of Patanjali, Delhi: Meharchand Lachhmandas Oriental & Foreign Booksellers.
  6. S.Balachandra Rao (2000), Ancient Indian Astronomy, Delhi: B.R.Publishing Corporation.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 K. S. Shukla, Astronomy in ancient and medieval India, Indian Journal of History of Science, Vol.4, Nos. 1-2 (1969), pp.99-106.
  8. C. R. Swaminathan (1994), Kanvasatapathabrahmanam, Volume I, New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre For The Arts and Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
  9. Lakshman Sarup (1967), The Nighantu and The Nirukta, Motilal Banarsidass.
  10. Nirukta, Adhyaya 3.
  11. Taittiriya brahmana, Kanda 1, Prapathaka 5.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Manna Lal Abhimanyu (1994), The Amara-kosha of Shri Amara Sinha, Benaras: Master Khelarilal & Sons.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Amarakosha, Kanda 1.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 Kolachana, Aditya & Mahesh, Kaluva & Ramasubramanian, K.. (2019). Main characteristics and achievements of ancient Indian astronomy in historical perspective. 10.1007/978-981-13-7326-8_24.
  15. Taittiriya Brahmana, Book 1, Chapter 5.
  16. Kolachana, Aditya & Mahesh, Kaluva & Ramasubramanian, K.. (2019). Main characteristics and achievements of ancient Indian astronomy in historical perspective. 10.1007/978-981-13-7326-8_24.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 Subhash Kak (2000), Astonomy and its Role in Vedic Culture, Chapter 23 in Science and Civilization in India, Vol.1, The Dawn of Indian Civilization, Part 1, edited by G. P. Pande, Delhi: ICPR/Munshiram Manoharlal, pp. 507-524.